The world’s largest single-family burial ground lies in a forest in Qufu, a city about 300 miles south of Beijing. The Cemetery of Confucius serves as the final resting place of the revered sage, along with more than 100,000 of his descendants from nearly 80 generations. Stone plaques mark many graves, and while most are simple slabs, some are hoisted atop bases carved to resemble tortoises.
These sculptural stelae—free-standing stone slabs that bear information—are not unique to Qufu. Tortoise-mounted tombstones can be found across East Asia, although they originated as ancient Chinese funerary markers, and are most prominent in China. While some stand directly above individual remains, others were placed near a burial site. In imperial mausoleums, for instance, funerary stelae are often housed in separate pavilions, according to Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. He adds that those afforded these expertly carved markers were usually high-ranking officials and members of the elite, and their stelae record glowing biographies, praising their accomplishments.
Adding a tortoise served to emphasize the goodness of the dead. Regarded in Chinese culture as auspicious creatures that symbolize longevity, the tortoise would convey that a person was so virtuous that their spirit could live forever. Tortoises are also seen as powerful beings that could carry heavy loads; one myth holds that a giant sea turtle known as Ao supported Earth on its back.
It wasn’t until the golden age of Chinese culture that artisans likely began producing these highly symbolic gravestones. “Turtles carrying stele started in the Han Dynasty, a time when Chinese culture as we know it became formalized,” Xu says. “The use also became more diverse because you could use it for any purpose. But it originated as the tomb marker—as a carrier of one’s biography, so descendants can forever remember an ancestor’s great deeds and pay tribute to them.”
Tablets on tortoise shells were also made to commemorate landmarks, from temples to parks, with inscriptions chronicling each site’s origin story. The Temples of Confucius and Yan Hui, near the Cemetery of Confucius, together house 25 examples, dating from the Song to the Qing Dynasties, that record various structural renovations. With an 800-year gap between the earliest and most recent stelae, this collection also illustrates how the iconography of the tortoises developed. The earliest figures have plump, benevolent faces that crane skywards as if to greet any visitors. But later shells have dragon heads emerging from them, at times with jaws open to reveal rows of teeth.
This latter depiction represents the powerful Bixi (赑屃), one of the nine sons of the mythological Chinese Dragon King. During the Han dynasty, many stelae bearers took on this hybrid appearance, although their dragon characteristics can be very subtle.
One such funerary plaque, acquired by the Dallas Museum of Art, originally marked the grave of an unidentified 46-year-old woman. Dating between 219 and 316 CE, it stands 22 inches tall, anchored by a shell-bearing creature that seems wholly turtle-like, were it not for its low-relief fangs and whiskers. Anne Bromberg, the museum’s Cecil and Ida Green Curator of Ancient and Asian Art, says that the compound creature also represents two of the four central figures in the Chinese constellations that “show how the Chinese understood the nature of the universe. To have the dragon and the tortoise is to show that the dead woman is in fact blessed and protected under the care of magic figures.”
Many other funerary Bixi remain in situ. The world-famous collection of 13 imperial Ming and Qing mausoleums, near Beijing, features one pavilion with a stele mounted on a fierce, dragon-headed, 50-ton tortoise. The 26-foot-tall tablet commemorates the deeds of the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Di, known as the Yongle Emperor. Later rulers were honored in a similar fashion: In the mausoleum complex known as Dingling, a Bixi lies at the base of a memorial to the 14th Ming emperor Wan Li.
Perhaps the largest, most imposing example in China resides in the Ming Xiaoling mausoleum near Nanjing. Ming dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang, or the Hongwu Emperor, was buried there in the late 14th century, and his triumphs are inscribed at length upon a stele known as “The Stele of Godly Merit and Saintly Virtue.” The nine-foot-tall Bixi at its base—bulbous and stoic—is on its own higher than many other stelae; the massive stone slab rising from its shell extends another 20 feet skywards.
Over time, these carved carapaces also appeared in China’s neighbors, as Chinese culture crossed borders to influence language, food, and art. One notable seventh-century tablet in Gyeongju, South Korea, balanced on the back of a benevolent turtle, marks the burial mound of Taejong Muyeol, ruler of the Silla kingdom.
More stylized examples are found in Japan. In Kamakura, the tombs of Shimazu Tadahisa and Mori Suemitsu, founders of 12th- and 13th-century samurai clans, are separated by a stone tablet lifted on an alligator-like Bixi. Further west, in the Tottori prefecture, daimyō, or great lords, of the Ikeda clan are commemorated with plaques on turtles with thick, circular shells that bring to mind the savory pancakes known as okonomiyaki.
But it’s in distant Okinawa, Japan’s southern cluster of islands, where the most jaw-dropping expression of these tortoise-shaped memorials lie. Here you’ll find examples of kamekōbaka, or turtleback tombs—ancient family vaults with roofs that resemble a curved tortoise shell. This unique form was meant to symbolize a womb. As Clarence J. Glacken writes in his 1955 publication, The Great Loochoo: A Study of Okinawan Village Life, “In popular lore, the turtleback tomb is associated with this last belief: on death one returns to the womb of nature from which he came.” Glacken goes on to note that such iconography was introduced from China; inspiration likely came specifically from the Fujian Province, where turtleback tombs are often decorated with a geometric pattern.
Funerary practices, of course, have evolved over time. While the symbolic meaning of these sculpted stelae has not disappeared, new ones are no longer in high production, Xu says. We have devised more effortless methods of burial and commemoration that are, in some cases, automated and digital. Painstakingly carved, these tall tablets and the mythological creatures supporting them survive as ancient artworks. But they’re also reminders of the universal human desires to be remembered and live beyond this world.